The nuclear age had a murderous beginning, and how it will end has been the great existential question of our time. After Hiroshima, physicist I.I. Rabi made that point prophetically: “Suddenly the day of judgment was the next day and has been ever since.” “The Partnership” is the important story of five prominent members of the U.S. national security establishment, all longtime supporters of nuclear weapons, who decided in their seventh and eighth decades to do what they could to stave off judgment day.

On Jan. 4, 2007, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Republican secretaries of state; William Perry, former secretary of defense in the Clinton administration; and Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator, co-authored a transformative opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal. Warning that “nuclear weapons today present tremendous [new] dangers,” they called for “a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.” That article, and the global reaction to it, inspired former New York Times correspondent Philip Taubman’s detailed reconstruction of the experiences and the associations that led these nuclear weapons cognoscenti to execute their public about-face.

Shultz became the group’s earliest convert and lead organizer after being intellectually galvanized by Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell (who had been motivated by Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov) and prodded by Reagan-era arms control negotiator Max Kampelman. The process of persuading Kissinger and Nunn to join the cause makes for a fascinating sociological study of elite behavior. The power of ideas, the pull of personal relationships and a craving to remain relevant all helped to coax them on board. Asked why Kissinger had signed on, Perry noted that “Henry likes to be front and center of big policy issues of the day, and this put him in that position, even though he didn’t fully agree with all of the conclusions.”

Nunn’s conversion was not all that different. Although he had co-sponsored (with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar) the 1992 Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which directed U.S. dollars to the securing of Soviet nuclear materials and weapons, Nunn, who retired from the Senate in 1997, shunned nuclear abolition proposals as utopian. But by 2006, as Shultz, Perry and Drell pressed their case, the former senator saw — “very quickly,” according to a colleague at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which Nunn co-chairs — “that there was something going on that would perhaps undercut his standing as the preeminent guru in the [nuclear arms control] field, and so he pretty quickly signed on to it.”

The argument in the Wall Street Journal essay was not new; critics of nuclear deterrence had been making similar ones for 62 years. And even if one counts the end of the Cold War as the beginning of the opportunity to consider nuclear abolition, other overseers of nuclear weapons had earlier promoted radical change. In 1996, Gen. Lee Butler, former commander of the Strategic Air Command, courageously called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Three years later, the venerable Cold Warrior Paul Nitze, arguably the father of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy, wrote in the New York Times that he saw “no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally [emphasis added] get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them is costly and adds nothing to our security.”

’The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb’ by Philip Taubman (HarperCollins)

Nevertheless, coming from pillars of the nuclear weapons regime, the partners’ initiative signaled a sea change that attracted wide attention. Critics declared them foolish at best, while long-standing opponents of nuclear weapons greeted them as guilt-ridden latecomers. Most important, however, policy moderates at home and abroad — in Russia, Germany, Great Britain and France, as well as other countries — welcomed their proposal and enthusiastically endorsed their goal.

International conferences followed, along with more essays, a documentary film (“The Tipping Point”) screened at the White House and meetings with high-level government officials. By 2009, the signers had provided President Obama with sufficient bipartisan cover for him to declare on April 6, in his first major foreign policy address abroad, “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” although he prudently added, “perhaps not in my lifetime.”

The president’s cautious qualifier highlighted the tensions between past and future that confound non-proliferation strategies. If nuclear weapons are to be abolished in the 21st century, nations that have nuclear weapons, and those contemplating their acquisition, must be offered radically new security arrangements that they can embrace as alternatives.

Yet the greatest barrier to thinking outside the nuclear-weapons box is the U.S. commitment to nuclear deterrence, a decidedly debatable policy that the partners defensively and unhelpfully champion as having been necessary during the Cold War. “Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence,” their Wall Street Journal essay averred, thus making the case (from Iran’s point of view) for an Iranian nuclear deterrent.

A broader history of the nuclear abolition movement beyond the five partners could have revealed additional promising strategies and ideas. Dozens of anti-nuclear organizations have for decades been producing proposals more imaginative than sanctions, threats and violence. A most interesting example is the Global Zero movement, started in 2006 by the World Security Institute as “The Compact to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons.” Within a few years, its international conferences in Paris and London had developed a widely endorsed, step-by-step, 20-year plan for eliminating nuclear weapons; and in 2010, a documentary film about nuclear terrorism, “Countdown to Zero,” was released and has reportedly been seen by more than 2 million people.

But most important, Global Zero has organized more than100 chapters on college campuses in the United States and abroad that carry the message of nuclear abolition to a new generation. In the shadow of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement, it should be obvious that the commitments of youth warrant attention.

“Why don’t you get some younger people to join your group?” Charlotte Shultz asked her husband as they left a Berlin news conference that had featured several of Germany’s most eminent octogenarians. A plausible answer is that the partners honed their leadership skills to influence elite circles. But if these elder statesmen can join forces with the half-million students and citizens who have signed the Global Zero Declaration, Obama’s next speech on nuclear abolition might well include: “Perhaps in my lifetime.”

Martin J. Sherwin , university professor of history at George Mason University, is writing a book on the Cuban missile crisis.


Five Cold Warriors and
Their Quest to Ban the Bomb

By Philip Taubman

Harper. 478 pp. $29.99